BEVERLY — Before Mass on a recent Sunday, the Rev. Jurgen Liias stood in a cramped sacristy of a Catholic church with an acolyte and cantor and began a call-and-response prayer of preparation.
Incense smoldered. The men thumped their chests in a gesture of contrition.
The elaborate ritual would seem unusual to most Catholic priests, who pray silently before Mass as they don their vestments, or quietly focus on the sacred work ahead. But Liias, who is 65, is different. He entered the church through a new doorway that lets members of the Anglican Communion return to the mother church in Rome while retaining their congregational communities — and, if they wish, much of their ornate ritual, including old Catholic traditions that Rome changed or left behind.
Pope John Paul II extended to Anglicans, including married priests, the opportunity to become Catholic in 1980. During the next 30 years, 100 or so Anglican priests entered the Catholic Church and were incorporated into local dioceses.
But some in the worldwide Anglican Communion — particularly the Episcopal Church, the religious body’s US province — wanted to make it easier for whole congregations to come in, and to be part of a group of like-minded churches.
At their request, Pope Benedict XVI established special “ordinariates” — basically superdioceses — especially for Anglican priests and congregations. The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, which spans the United States and Canada, was created last year. It includes more than 30 congregations, including Liias’s St. Gregory the Great, which held its first Mass in April.
“They are on a pilgrimage together, as opposed to an individual journey,” said the Rev. R. Scott Hurd, the ordinariate’s vicar general.
It is a tiny movement so far, with fewer than 2,000 people spread across a vast continent, an infinitesimal proportion of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
In many respects, the ordinariate resembles the Eastern Catholic Churches that returned to Rome from the Eastern Orthodox Church and have been allowed to preserve their own worship traditions and structure.
Hurd said the Vatican created the ordinariate primarily to “promote Christian unity” by bringing Anglicans back into the fold of Catholicism.
He said Episcopalians who are attracted to Catholicism “usually struggle with the breadth of plurality in belief” within the Episcopal Church “and come to appreciate the definitive teachings that are found in Catholicism.”
Liias has spent most of his career at the margins of the Episcopal Church, embracing both charismatic and high-church worship styles, each of which would be alien to most Episcopalians in Massachusetts. An avuncular grandfather who hikes 14,000-foot mountains and has deep experience in the charismatic movement, he is as comfortable speaking in tongues as he is praying the rosary.
He has come to see Catholicism as the center of gravity of Christianity, and an inevitable end point, not only on his own path as a Christian, but for Christianity itself.
“The unity of the church is not only an imperative for the internal life of God’s people but an essential dimension of her evangelical mission,” he wrote in a blog post this year.
He envisions creating a congregation that reaches out to evangelical Protestants and others, incorporating the authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church; an evangelical focus on preaching and a close relationship with Jesus; and some of the elaborate Anglican ceremony.
In time, the congregation hopes to add more contemporary services that appeal to young people.
Where St. Gregory’s sojourn will lead, and what it will mean for the Catholic Church, remain to be seen. The congregation has no building of its own; it leases worship space from St. Margaret Parish in Beverly Farms. About 20 people showed up for Mass on a recent Sunday.
It is a shadow of the vibrant parishes with big choirs and packed Sunday schools that Liias oversaw through most of his career as an Episcopal priest.
“It feels a little impoverished and sparse,” he acknowledged.
Some say Liias is wasting his talent as a preacher in an obscure outpost of Catholicism.
The Rev. Malcolm Reid, a former parishioner of Liias’s and now a priest at Liias’s previous congregation, Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Danvers, said he finds Liias’s choice baffling.
“It’s kind of truncating the use of his great gifts and experience,” Reid said.
Reid predicted the ordinariate would do little to heal the divisions between Christians.
“If there is going to be a real ecumenical [movement], it’s going to be at the grass-roots level — it’s never going to be organized from the top down,” he said.
But Liias’s closest associates in the new congregation said they see the ordinariate as full of possibility.
Kevin McDermott, a professional singer who serves as cantor, called the ordinariate churches “green shoots that are coming out of the blackened stump of the American [Catholic] Church.”
“The ordinariate has a role to play in bringing the best that the Protestant experiment has created — a sincere evangelical movement, a desire to win souls for Christ, a personal love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, a tradition of powerful and intellectual preaching” to Catholicism, he said.
To McDermott, the Anglican liturgical tradition retains the dignity and beauty of the old Tridentine Mass he remembers from childhood. He complained that the Ordinary Form of the Mass, said in most Catholic churches, rarely produces the same sense of transcendence; the Second Vatican Council, he said, attempted to “strip everything down to a kind of rec-room religion.”
The acolyte at St. Gregory’s is Peter Carpentier, a semiretired lawyer who works nationally with youth ministry.
The small size and experimental spirit of the ordinariate offered “the opportunity to be more imaginative and creative in terms of outreach to young adults,” he said.
Liias’s path to Catholicism did not seem so inevitable early in life.
He was born in Germany, the son of an Estonian farmer conscripted into the German army and a mother who fled Germany during the Soviet invasion. They met as workers in a clock factory in the Black Forest.
They arrived in the United States when Liias, baptized a Lutheran, was 4. The family lived in a displaced persons camp before moving to Charlestown, where the Rev. Wolcott Cutler of St. John’s Episcopal Church took them in to live in the rectory.
Cutler was a bachelor priest from a Brahmin family who dedicated his life to the poor. His influence was profound. Liias said he never wanted to be anything but a priest “like Mr. Cutler.”
In the turbulent late 1960s as a student at Amherst College — he met his future wife, Gloria, a Smith alumna and mathematician, the first day of their freshman year – Liias was deeply involved in student activism and the antiwar movement.
But as a young curate, he found spirituality in the charismatic movement and underwent a personal conversion after experiencing what he calls “a supernatural vision of the blood of Christ.”
His Malden parish in the 1980s included worship forms that would have looked wildly out of place in most Episcopal churches: speaking in tongues and “singing in the spirit.” He became active in the antiabortion movement.
He said he felt a call from God to become Catholic, but instead became an assistant rector at the Church of the Advent on Beacon Hill, which has a high-church worship style that incorporates incense, bells, and ornate vestments. Though a drastic departure from charismatic worship, Liias said the two worship styles share an embrace of the supernatural over the rational.
Liias combined the charismatic and the high-church worship styles in his next parish, Christ Church in Hamilton. But by the early 2000s, that congregation had become caught up in the conflict besetting the Episcopal Church over theological and governance issues, notably the approval of gay bishops.
About 150 people from the Hamilton parish formed a new church affiliated with the conservative Anglican Church in North America. Liias agreed to be the temporary rector.
But his desire to become Catholic grew. During his last year there, he and a small group of parishioners met to discuss the similarities and differences between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism in classes led by Tom Howard, an evangelical Christian who converted to Catholicism in the mid-1980s.
For most former Episcopalians considering Catholicism, Howard said, “there was only one question at stake, namely, what is the church?”
For Liias, the church had become the Catholic Church, and he felt the Holy Spirit calling him to join it at last. He said he believed he could rely upon its teachings through the ages as true, and that becoming Catholic was a move toward Christian unity.
By early 2012, a dozen people had committed to joining a church to be led by Liias. Last August, Liias renounced his orders as an Episcopal priest and was confirmed a Catholic. He was ordained by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley in April.
Liias said he has had an “overwhelming experience of spiritual joy” in the last year.
“We’ll see how this goes,” Liias said. “We’re just a handful of people starting out, and all things are subject to the will of God and the Spirit.”